Setting Boundaries

Something which has come up in discussion with friends and colleagues over the last few days is how and why Samantha have set ourselves rules in the collaboration. A couple of people have questioned the point of the rules: surely creativity is, by its very definition, a state without rules, without boundaries? they argue. How can you work under those conditions?

By setting conditions, one is testing oneself. Even if the result is disappointing, the process of learning how the disappointment was created will be useful for future writing/projects/collaborations. Samantha and I have essentially set ourselves up to fail: we’re trying to find out how things go wrong so that we can experiment with the boundaries of what it means to get things right.

By giving ourselves rules, we are setting up points of comparison. I can already compare my process for the first photoset-response to the second, and I can begin to draw conclusions about the importance of communication and honesty both with myself (What are my needs here? How am I feeling about this? What am I seeing and how am I seeing it?) and with Samantha (Do I anticipate a response from this? How helpful is it to guess what her narrative might be here?). I’m beginning to train myself to look at the photographs in a different way, to pay a different kind of attention to my attitudes to my own ideas.

People who have accepted the point of the rules are curious to know how we’re finding the restrictions, what freedoms we have found in them, how they’ve begun to leach into our other work. They’re also confused as to how our collaboration works. As Samantha has already blogged, there’s an instinctive assumption that the writing precedes the photography, that Samantha is setting up shoots to illustrate the stories rather than the other way round. As a teacher of creative writing, it is natural for me to use prompts – visual aids such as photographs – to get my students going with an idea. What is new for me, I suppose, is to then attempt to stick with the material at hand rather than to use it as an intangible push and also there’s the fact that I’m not choosing it: Samantha is choosing what will inspire me. The classic workshop scenario is a table full of postcards from which the students are encouraged to pick one or two to work from, but they are allowed freedom of attraction.
I was asked yesterday how I found working with someone I already knew. Did you always like her work? They asked, Or did you have to learn to like it? I suppose what they were really asking was is this a collaboration between two artists or two friends? My first exposure to Samantha’s photography was seeing pictures she’d taken of our shared social life, so for me the experience of Samantha as an artist and Samantha as my friend has always been linked. As her friend, I have followed her career to date with respect and admiration. We have always talked through and supported each others’ endeavours and careers. We first met as housemates, which puts a different element on our friendship since the experience of sharing a living space embeds a relationship in a very different way to a ‘regular’ friendship. During her MA at Bristol , Samantha scripted and filmed a short story I wrote as part of my MLitt at Newcastle. I suppose that was our first experience of sharing work in a direct, impactful fashion, but I dealt with it by essentially gifting the story to Sam: she needed to make changes for it to work on screen rather than page and I had to step back and allow her to do what she knew best rather than sit on the sidelines saying ‘but that isn’t what happens’ or ‘why did you cut that bit?

One of the reasons for charting the process – and for doing so in this public-facing blogosphere – of collaborating was so that we had a designated space to talk only about the collaboration, unimpeded by discussions of our personal lives or phonecalls cut short by time-differences and other commitments. I imagine that if I were to be working in collaboration with a total stranger, one of the first things we would need to do would be to establish a relationship perimeter: is this a person I’m physically comfortable with? Am I inviting them into my emotional life as well as my professional life and how do I define those boundaries? How will the intimacy of working closely together translate into sharing other work? With Samantha, I was looking at the same questions from a different angle: how will we mediate professional vs personal disputes? How will we keep boundaries between our personas as professionals and our private selves from negatively impacting our work?

So far so good, I reckon. We’re only two photo-sets down, and I think we’re gaining rather than losing momentum. We’re both finding the restrictions on discussing work to be difficult, but also both seeing the necessity for them at this stage in the collaboration. Something, actually, which a lot of people seem to be confused about is what are the rules of your collaboration? We don’t have a set manifesto, per se, since one of the main points of Dirty Laundry was to see what came up as we worked together. But here is how it seems to be shaping up so far.

i) At the beginning of the fortnight, Samantha posts a triptych of photographs on Dirty Laundry.

ii) By the end of the fortnight, Viccy posts a written response to the triptych on Dirty Laundry.

iii) By the end of the fortnight, Samantha and Viccy both blog here (two.5) about the technical and emotional processes undergone in producing the last piece of work.

iv) At times of their own choosing, Samantha and Viccy both blog here (two.5) about the experiences of collaborating, feedback received, plans for the future for two.5, and so forth.

v) Until both the photos and the written response are up on the site, Samantha and Viccy are not allowed to discuss that set of work with each other. They are allowed to talk about other matters, and past photo/story-sets, but not the work in hand or plans for future photos/stories as part of Dirty Laundry

It’s the final point that most people seem to be struggling with, because there’s an awkwardness in the timings of it and they don’t grasp what to us are internally assimilated rules. It also means that I have to be careful about looking at this site in case Samantha has posted process-based spoilers in one of her blogs which might affect how I respond.

Our main boundaries are time and communication based. Samantha has taken a decision to do model-shoots resulting in three pictures. I’ve taken a decision to respond in prose (fiction), and set myself a mental minimum of 500 words, but these technical details are theoretically open for change if it seems artistically necessary. I’m finding a massive technical change in my usual writing processes due to the time limits, and I think the communication lock-down is most directly impacting the concept of the collaboration: we’ve created a space for sharing and then effectively locked ourselves out of it, which questions the idea of collaboration itself, and which i’m becoming more & more fascinated with. That’s another of the questions which keeps cropping up from other people: What counts as a collaboration? How does your work impact on each other? So far all I can say is that is what we’re trying to work out.